Shazam! Interview: Costume Designer Leah Butler

Any time a new superhero movie suit is revealed to the fans, there is going to be some controversy. But if the response to Shazam! was any indication, the world cared just as much about Billy Batson’s costume as Superman or Batman. Even if the official unveiling came long, long after the suit design was spotted in several Shazam! set photos.

Long before the Shazam movie costume was highlighted in trailers and properly-lit still images, Screen Rant got the chance to visit the set of the film in Toronto. During our visit, we had the opportunity to examine the costume up close, with a personal explanation and walkthrough from Costume Designer Leah Butler. Now, we’re finally able to share the entirety of our interview with our readers–as Butler walks us through ever aspect of the suit, and how it was all designed to tell the story of a boy turned into a mythical hero overnight.

RELATED: Zachary Levi Interview From The Set of Shazam!

We started the walkthrough of the Shazam hero suit with an introduction from Butler. Before beginning the design process, Butler and director David F. Sandberg arrived at the logic behind the costume, and how its design and style would speak to that of the film as a whole.

I’m going to read something that when I first started and David and I were talking about the costume and we went back to where we came from and who he is. And what we’re doing in the story too. Hope I don’t bore you, but here we go…

“Shazam is an acronym for the six mythological figures who agreed to grant aspects of themselves to Billy Batson, turning him into a superhero with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. Our Shazam is rooted in mythology. Young Billy transforms into a superhero not understanding his true power as he discovers his gifts. The audience will transform as Billy transforms, his naivety and true identity. We want to see the spark and start from the ground up and turn on the development of the costume. Mythological symbols and icons will be utilized in his designs along with elements from the past that feel real and not streamlined.”

There’s some color things in here, just talking about color. “Red is often the most intense color emotionally in the spectrum. The Greeks began using red blood as a pigment in ancient Rome… In Ancient Greece, gold was a metal that was precious to the Gods, to the extent that they were dressed in gold. Precious gold, the color, the luster of the gold continues to be associated with the sun and the sacred masculine. Approach to costume is also born from organic elements, and will feel sacred and true as opposed to machine like, severe, or manufactured. This design will be approached with these basics is in mind.”

So, A little bit different than what we’re seeing out there right now, right? We really wanted to approach it, really… He’s a little boy who transforms into a superhero. We wanted to keep his feel real to the comic, through history, I mean he’s been around since the 1940s, which you probably know. And then try to really incorporate… the director really liked a lot of imagery from the New 52. You’ll see a lot of New 52, i.e., the hood, in this iteration. The pattern on here is also taken from Greek and Roman … like a Greek key pattern that we did, it’s the pattern that we did on top of the fabrication. There are two different sizes of it and all these design lines here are [inaudible] as well. We used a lot of [inaudible] elements now, which gives this a really nice, dynamic look. It’s 3D. As you can see, there’s also that sort of Greek key pattern as well on the cape. That as well was printed. He has everything from gauntlets to belts to what we like to call, the bolt.

The bolt obviously lights up. We wanted to have some practical lighting on the face, because he is going be lit up during the movie. The director and the DP really wanted to do some shadows and really see some actual practical light. We took the lighting elements, which there are indeed quite a bit of, and incorporated it into this shape here so it would be able to go right in between the pecs. It’s a very thin lighting element that is adjustable. It goes up and down… we’re able to adjust the temperature of the light and how visual it is while we’re shooting. There we go [the bolt slowly brightens to an almost blinding white level]. Quite bright. I’m not going to blind you all, but as you can see we were able to really come up with a great technology. And luckily enough, the stunt guy and Zac have actually not broken one yet. I can’t believe it. David came up to us when we were designing the costume and said, ‘It would be really cool if the gauntlets lit up too, do you think you could do that?’ ‘Yeah, sure, why not?’ Okay. So, I got to do another lighting element there. That’s how the lit gauntlets came about.

The [tiger-embossed cape clasps] came about because we started going through history, and different genres, and symbolism. I was thinking of lions, and something strong, and I actually worked with a [comic fans] he said, ‘Mr. Tawny!’ And I said, ‘That’s a great idea! That must be how Mr. Tawny ended up in ours.’

Obviously Zack is in great shape, but does the costume enhance the superhero look or is it all natural?

Well, the only all natural person ever, in history, was Christopher Reeve. So there’s your answer. Okay? Now, maybe Dwayne Johnson [attached for DC’s Black Adam] would be, I’m not sure. I don’t care who it is right now, everyone has [some underlayer]. But Zack got in incredible shape, so we were very thankful that he was able to do that, and his form has really helped so much and really showing our Shazam the way he should be. I think Zack has worked really hard–I don’t know if you’ve seen the photos [laughs]–but he’s done a really great job. So I just wanted to make sure you know that.

You mentioned Dwayne Johnson before and obviously there are plenty of spin-offs plans to this already. Are any of the design elements that you’re working on for this going to be incorporated into that design?

I don’t know yet actually. I’m not sure. I’m sure I’ll be enlightened very soon on what that will be but I’m not sure right now.

RELATED: How Shazam! May Already Confirm BLACK ADAM in the DCEU

Obviously in the comic there’s a whole family of people who have basically slight variations on the same costume. When you’re designing this do you kind of take notes of this is something we could tweak down the line, this is something we could use for Mary or whoever?

Absolutely, yeah. Very much so. But they’re you know an important part of the comic, it’s kind of nice to look at everything that’s been done with them in the comics as well. So I just kinda go okay, you never know.

There’s something to the continuity in the larger DCEU with Wonder Woman and all that. Did you spend time looking at the DCEU movies that exist already to make sure that Billy could show up next to Batman and not look too cartoony?

Absolutely, yes. In fact I’ve spent a lot of times in the archives looking at all the different costumes. Federcio [Cervantes] worked on another movie with Batman that’s been commissioned as well. And other than that, Shazam should hold up very well next to Superman.

Is the lighting element in the suit to help contribute to set lighting or indicative of the character’s power?

Both. Very much both.

Obviously when you look at the wizard suit next to you, the bolt and other things carried over. But obviously Billy looks a lot more super hero-y. Is that in your mind a manifestation of him being a person who lives in a world with superheroes and this is how he kind of sees it?

Definitely. I think that’s a great analogy or way of stating that. It’s so funny because it really is sort of the little boy who becomes a superhero and his strength and he’s got all of these things within the acronym and really to show that and I love the idea that he’s manifested that inside of him. And Zac, I would say kind of plays it so well. Sometimes I watch I’m just blown away at the way his naivety comes out.

Is there anything like getting an actor into a superhero suit that is supposed to look great but maybe not be the most accessible?

Federico Cervantes [Specialty Costumer]: Yeah, interesting question.

It seems tight.

Federico: It is. You know, they are definitely conforming, and I know somebody asked about the musculature earlier. These guys have to get in shape, because if you don’t work out, the suit’s gonna work you. Especially for action. Sometimes it’s like wearing a rubber band, because there’s a lot of resistance and the first thing we try to tell everybody is they’re gonna be uncomfortable, put it that way. It’s that pressure in the shoulders, and back straighteners… the outer suit is really compression, so we have to make sure that everything’s in place, and things work smoothly.

Leah: And there’s a hard lighting element here. Well, you know as soft as it can possibly be but sure.

Federico: Yeah, they’re usually either wearing so its worse for them to do their acting and action while wearing suits like this. We try to make them as comfortable as possible and keep them comfortable in between takes like taking elements off but it’s never easy.

How many suits did you make total?

Ten.

Wow.

Between the stunts and Zac. So, yeah.

How long does it take to get him into and out of a suit?

Federico: You know, early on we worked through several elements but we had it down to about three minutes.

Leah: But in the beginning, the first time, it was close to an hour.

Federico: Because, the outer suit is really compression, so we to make sure that everything’s in place, and things work smoothly, but yeah, it gets easier.

Leah: And the hood and kind of everything else that goes along with it too takes a little bit of time.

And when you’re at this angle here, you can kind of see the edges of the suit under the logo. Is that something you can minimize as much as humanly possible, because you don’t really want it to show up?

Exactly. That’s actually something that really bothered me. But yeah, we really do get up close we try to get it so it’s just in the right spot.

RELATED: How Shazam! Connects To The Other DCEU Movies

Did you make many other suits to near this stage of completion?

 Yeah, it’s interesting because actually, the part that takes the longest is coming up with the fabrication. We didn’t do a complete suit before, but there was tons of R&D with the fabrics, tons of R&D with the printing. Like, what are the designs lines gonna look like? How do they come together? And this is kinda what we call, ‘pattern specific printing.’ So, they have to have printed panels that will work together. And if the actor changes size or shape, it can definitely change. So yeah, we have to be careful there. I will say too that the length of the cape is shorter maybe than your traditional Superman. And it was very pleasing actually, that he has this kind of fun length to the cape, which shows a lot of movement and action and just has a sort of more useful, light feel to it.

Elvis-length cape.

Yeah.

Is the cape always practical or do they sometimes add it back later?

Yeah, there are certain stunts that would just not be safe to perform when you’re on the wires with a cape on.

Can you talk about the stitching on the cape?

This is printed. It’s actually a printed pattern on the cape.

It actually looks stitched.

It does. You know what? I forged some embroidery but the printing that we’re able to do these days is mind-blowing.

What is the cape made out of? Because a lot of other capes are heavy and vinyl-looking.

It’s wool. And we went through again with the research. So many different fabrics. What is gonna look good? What is gonna hold? What is going to move? And we landed on this really beautiful wool.

Is it difficult when you’re shooting at say at the Christmas carnival thing, to shoot anything with the cape and not have it be brown for the rest of the scene?

Federico: Yes. Yeah, we’re constantly wiping things down with towels or trying to [inaudible] by not reversing them. Yeah, be mindful of it. And you have ten.

Leah: You can go through ten pretty quick.

I’m assuming the cape is removable on all or most of the costumes at least to try and minimize that?

Yeah. That’s why the handy-dandy buttons actually screw in and hold in the cape to the elements.

Do you have any thoughts on the very public reveal of the suit?

Yeah. I mean when you’re shooting somewhere and some guy take some really bad photos from very far away, it’s a little bit sad. Because I think it’s absolutely beautiful and so yeah, it’s a disappointing reveal. But for the most part, all of the comments, I follow a lot of the social media. The studio does. We’ve had a lot of very positive comments about them. Very happy about that.

Do you think about some of that earlier criticism about the visuals being muted in previous films, when you’re not only designing this costume but other costumes? Is that something that you have to think about?

Oh absolutely, yeah. And I think too, it depends on the roots and where the character comes from, and the storyline. So, I feel like with our characters and David was a big proponent of really making him true to what he was in the comic, and also, you know, really exude that sort of fun part of the Shazam character versus something evil.

The last thing for me is the boots are such an interesting choice. What went into this, because I’ve seen the sandals, which is awesome.

Let me just tell you, that we had a pair of sandals to start off with–very New 52–and it didn’t work. So we needed to come up with something a bit meatier and we were talking about, you know, kind of working through things, that was one thing we definitely worked through. He has so much action, too, and we wanted the design lines to really follow through with the other elements within the costume itself. Design lines are from the bolt, the belt, and the gauntlet, and as you can see we even pull in the fabric. [The sandal design] was going to be sort of a one piece sort of thing, with a bit of the fabrication almost in it.

We even looked at perhaps doing it attached like Superman’s, but ended up going in this other direction. Zac, luckily, feels quite comfortable in these I think for the most part. And they’re pretty functional for him too.

Did that not work because of how it looked or because he had to use his feet sometimes?

Kind of both, actually, really. Yeah. It was… you know you take that sort of gladiator sandal sort of look and you actually make it on something that it sort of took it to a different place, and we wanted it to be a little bit stronger, I guess.

It would be tricky to just have them cut off mid-shin, and then sandals. I don’t know how it would read on screen.

Yeah, that was gonna be sort of a one piece sort of thing, with a bit of the fabrication almost in it. We even looked at perhaps doing it attached like Superman’s but ended up going in this other direction.

Stay tuned to Screen Rant for more Shazam! set visit coverage, including interviews, previews, and some theories of our own.

MORE: Shazam! Inspiration Was KINGDOM COME, Not The New 52

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